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The above variations are so common that a reader should know them as he does his own name. Beside these, there are certain rarer variations which may be mentioned here.
Occasionally a line occurs in which we must make a long pause take the place of a missing syllable, as below:
Even Shakespeare cannot use these lines often without becoming harsh; consequently there are very few of them. Somewhat more frequently he uses lines of six, four, or two feet instead of five. Here is one of six:
Who chooseth mé
Here is one of two:
must give and haz ard all he hath.
Even lines of only one foot occur.
To read Shakespeare's verse as he would have read it, we must also remember that many words have changed in pronunciation since his day, just as others have changed in meaning. Endings in ean and ion must often be pronounced as two syllables instead of one.
Sometimes, too, the accent is on a different syllable from that of the modern word.
I tell thee, lady, this aspect of mine.
We trifle tíme | I pray thee pur
sue sen tence.
It is not to be implied by these rules and directions that one should scan every line in Shakespeare. But we should scan enough to get the general swing of the verse so that we may always read it correctly; and when we come to an unusual type of line we should be able to analyze it and know just how it should be read. It would be desecration to consider Shakespeare's beautiful lines as nothing but exercises in scansion, mere words to be cut up into feet according to rule; but it is a still greater desecration to read those beautiful lines, as so many young readers do, without regard to their swing or music, turning the poet's waves of splendid sound into drawling, stammering, limping prose. All his plays were written to be spoken; and it is only when we read them aloud, getting into their full current of sound, that we can properly appreciate and enjoy them.
THE MERCHANT OF VENICE
A play differs from a story in that it tries to show us real men and women in interesting situations, where a story would simply tell us what they did. Often when
we have read some fascinating novel or fairy tale, we exclaim, "If I could only have been there and have seen it!" A play is an attempt on the author's part to make us believe that we actually are there and see it. Thus, in The Merchant of Venice we are not told that Shylock made a treacherous bargain with Antonio; but we see Shylock and Antonio talking together, hear their words, and hear the bargain concluded. To get this lifelike effect at its best we must see the play acted. In so doing we may watch a flesh-and-blood Shylock moving back and forth before us, may overhear his low, ominous whispers to himself, and catch the wicked gleam in his eyes when he feels that his victim is in the trap. This was the way that Shakespeare meant us to enjoy his plays, for they were all written on purpose to be acted. But if we cannot do this, the next best thing is to read the play, and picture to ourselves the actions of the different people as we follow the words they speak. We must make our own imagination take the place of the stage. When Shylock cries, "Justice! the law! my ducats and my daughter!", we must call up his image before our mind's eye-the white beard, the hooked nose, the wild gestures of his clawlike fingers, the mingling of ferocity and loneliness in his voice. If we read Shakespeare in this way we shall find his work almost as lifelike as when acted; and in one respect we shall be better off, for we shall have more time to linger over fine passages and discover how much there is in them.
A play which ends happily is a comedy; one which ends unhappily is a tragedy. Taken as a whole, The Merchant
of Venice is clearly a comedy; for it is full of cheerful scenes, the romance of "love's young dream," and leaves all the main characters hopeful and fortunate at the conclusion. Yet it is not unmixed comedy, for the scenes where Antonio is threatened with death by his remorseless creditor are almost tragic. Tragic, too, in its way, is the final departure of the old Jew, baffled, beaten, and made a public laughing-stock for the men whom he hated. But these dark spots, like passing clouds on a summer day, only make the sunshine afterward seem the brighter by comparison.
In this comedy, as in most of his work, Shakespeare borrowed the rough outlines of the story from the writings of other men. This does not mean that he should have any the less credit, for he changed and improved his materials, transforming them into something which the original writers never could have given us. Just as the Wright brothers took the clumsy, impracticable machines of their predecessors and remodeled them into engines that would fly, so Shakespeare took the dull, rambling, unreadable narratives of the men before him and made them work, transformed them into creations of beauty and poetry and interest. The material for The Merchant of Venice was not all drawn from one source. The story of the pound of flesh was many centuries old. Its earliest known form has been traced back to a poem of ancient India, the Mahábhárata; and it had been retold with variations from age to age. Two centuries before Shakespeare it had been included in an Italian novel called Il Pecorone (The Blockhead); and from Italy it came
into England and reached Shakespeare. The story of the three caskets he may have taken from the Gesta Romanorum (Deeds of the Romans), a collection of stories written first in Latin and then translated into English. In one of these stories a princess makes choice between three caskets, gold, silver, and lead, and wins the emperor's son by choosing the leaden one. The bare outlines of the story were ancient, but Shakespeare first gave them value and meaning.
It is probable that Shakespeare drew considerable of his material for The Merchant of Venice from another play on the same subject which was already in existence. In The School of Abuse written by a man named Gosson in 1579 (when our great dramatist was a boy of fifteen at Stratford), there is mention of a play called the Jew, "representing the greediness of worldly choosers, and the bloody minds of usurers." That play is wholly lost; but, judging from the above quotation, it must have contained a good deal which Shakespeare used later in The Merchant of Venice. This borrowing again need not diminish our respect for him. In those days dramatists borrowed freely from one another, and considered it perfectly fair and legitimate to do so. Shakespeare resorted to this method several times; and in nearly every case his work was so vastly superior to that of the writer from whom he borrowed that it was like transmuting charcoal into diamonds. He was simply trying and succeeding where another had tried and failed.
Three different texts of The Merchant of Venice which are very important to us were printed either during the